WASHINGTON — A Democratic push to ban roughly 150 types of assault-style weapons Thursday has placed Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall in a tough spot.
Neither Democrat has committed to supporting the legislation carried by their Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein of California, saying Thursday they want to study the proposal to make sure it aligned with Colorado values.
"The Second Amendment and a strong tradition of gun ownership, particularly for hunting and sporting, are a vital part of Colorado's heritage," Bennet said. "Just as strongly as we honor that tradition, we must do more to keep the wrong guns out of the wrong hands."
Feinstein's proposed bill — which Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Jefferson County, will introduce as a companion measure in the House next week — builds on a law that was in place in the 1990s and expired in 2004.
The proposal, which has no sunset provision this time, subjects existing weapons to background checks when they are sold or transferred.
Feinstein said the bill protects more than 2,000 types of shotguns and hunting and sporting rifles but would ban the sale, transfer, importation or manufacture of roughly 150 separate firearms.
"There are legitimate questions about the effectiveness of a ban on military-grade weapons, but I believe that a multifaceted approach, including a ban on such weapons, can be crafted that works for Colorado sportsmen," Udall said, stopping short of endorsing the proposal.
Bennet's and Udall's messaging Thursday was confounding only because both said in the days after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that they support universal background checks and assault weapons bans. In theory.
What stops them from getting behind concrete legislation is likely a blend of politics and the pull of Colorado's inimitable frontier past of gun ownership that still very much resonates — even with blue and purple voters.
"It's probably not in the best interest of Western Democrats to be the primary advocates of this," said Mike Stratton, a Democratic consultant in Colorado. "I think what's going to happen is the Democratic leadership is going to have to come up with something that is palatable to moderate Republicans."
An assault-style weapons ban is certainly not perceived by observers as palatable among Republicans.
None of Colorado's four Republicans are expected to support the companion measure when it is introduced in the House. It also lacks universal support among Colorado's House Democrats.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, says he thinks banning weapons possessed by law-abiding people violates the Second Amendment.
"I believe it would make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves and also interfere with the recreational use of guns by law-abiding Coloradans," Polis said. "If we want to reduce violence, we should invest in improving our schools to ensure that young people have jobs and do not turn to gangs, crime or violence of any form, and improving access to mental health services."
Perlmutter, whose district at the time included the Aurora movie theater where 12 people died and dozens more were injured last year, read a letter at the Capitol on Thursday from the parents of some of the victims.
"We listened to the 911 tapes played in court and sat in agony as 30 shots were fired in 27 seconds wondering if one of those bullets killed our children," Perlmutter said. "An AR-15 was used in that massacre. ... Our everyday freedom we have as Americans is being taken away by acts of violence."
The weapons ban has an uncertain future in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House — it was unclear Thursday whether it will even get a vote.
Lawmakers, including many Republicans, instead are gathering around efforts to increase mental health checks and greater access to mental health services — a less divisive, less political way to address gun safety.
Bennet joined a bipartisan Senate group Thursday to push a mental health bill that gives money for training programs to help the public identify, understand and address crisis situations safely.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, who doesn't support an assault weapons ban, said he thinks energy should be funneled toward improving mental health services.
"I don't think gun control legislation could make it through the House or Senate right now," Gardner said. "We should focus our efforts on areas where we can find common ground and make progress, like mental health."